“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
“Evil is the rock of Atheism”
“How long, O LORD, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, “Violence!”
Yet You do not save.”
The struggle with evil is not new to the “New Atheists.” It’s as ancient as scripture itself. Mankind has wrestled with the idea for millennia, and no one has ostensibly mitigated it, nor fully understood it in light of a good and powerful God. Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us that we aren’t privy to everything God knows. Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 reminds us that even those who claim to know what god is up to, don’t. Evil exists in so many forms. It’s physical, mental, and spiritual. It can torment and abuse us in so many ways, shapes and forms. The one thing we know, it’s real, and it’s destructive.
Whereas the “Problem of Evil” is as theologian Hans king has quipped, “The rock of atheism,” since trying to figure out how a wise, loving and powerful God could allow such atrocities is mind numbing, the atheist has an equal problem in regard to the “Problem of Good.” If we are random “Happy Molecules,” then where does beauty and good come from? And if there is evil, and especially the evil God does, how do we know that? Who says it’s evil? As one writer said, “Atheists don’t believe in God and they are mad at Him!” In many ways, westerners have lost an ability to define evil. We have killed God and Satan, affirmed the “goodness” of humanity and subsequently struggle when evil raises its head. To this Columbia professor of Humanities Anthony Delbanco iterates in his book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil, that we have deemed everyone ok, and the only issue we have are mental disorders that will be someday eradicated by science. He highlights this problem by quoting evil personified; Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs,
“Nothing happened to me, officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants-nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, officer Starling. Can you stand to say, ‘I am evil?”
Sam Harris doesn’t deny evil, but says that, “We can know good and evil without the existence of a lawgiving god.” The question would then be whose “Good?” Whose “Evil?” I do believe Harris is right in that since our culture has been bathed in Christian morality and the 10 commandments for centuries, we do know what’s right and wrong inherently. Romans 2 tell us that (See Romans 2:14-15). Atheist Philosopher Luc Ferry admits this truth as he writes,
“There are in Christian thought, above all in the realm of ethics, ideas which are of great significance even today…the idea that the moral worth of person does not lie in his inherited gifts or natural talents, but in the free use he makes of them is a notion which Christianity gave to the world, and which many modern ethical systems would adopt for its purposes.”
However sublime humans can be, humanity has shown over and over again that in spite of that knowledge, they can rebel against it and do what is “right in their eyes.” It is absurd to say that humans are basically good, when there is so much evil in the world.
The real issue here is who has authority over our actions, and whose justice is superior? The usual answer to this by the Neo Atheists is that that the written law of God is an atrocity, and even religious Jews and Christians do not hold to these embarrassing mores, and therefore we cannot know morality from the Judeo-Christian scriptures at all. Richard Dawkins writes to this and says,
“The God of the Old testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
I just wish he wouldn’t hold back what he really thought J Dawkins, as well as the human condition, wants to as CS Lewis reminds us, “Put God in the docks.” That is, we feel it is our right to put God on trial, and judge Him with our vast and infinite superiority of moral knowledge and goodness. Humans desire Justice, so long as it doesn’t touch on our own evil. As long as we define what evil is, and who is evil, then we demand justice; thus religious people, gods of any sort, the ‘non enlightened,’ the weak, etc. can be done away with figuratively or in reality as the continued genocide of people groups proves. “Justice” and “Righteousness” are used most often in the vocabulary of oppressors. As we saw last week, Sam Harris the bastion of reason and goodness wrote, “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” The fact is any form of absolute can be used oppressively, with the justification that what they are doing is making this a better world.
So what do we do with evil? How does a “good” God allow, and even in some cases use evil? These are legitimate questions that I hope to touch on today.
Big Picture: Evil is the rejection and rebellion against a holy, loving and righteous God who defines goodness based on His being, character and nature.
From the Head…
Any look at God and evil is not satisfactory when you are suffering. CS Lewis witnessed this between his academic treatment of suffering in the Problem of Pain, and the post death of his wife treatment in Grief Observed. With that, I do want to make Five Observations I pray are relevant for our time, knowing that this is clearly a surface treatment of the issue. First,
God Is Good
Psalm 34:8 says that “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” This doesn’t mean that God is always fair in our eyes or acts in accordance with our will (See Matthew 20:1-16). Theologian John Stackhouse says, “God always does the right thing; God always wills what is best; God always thinks without error, incompleteness, or prejudice. Such a God may not always be likable, nor always comfortable. But such a God may well be worthy of worship.” The reality is, it is man and his systems that are unjust not God’s (See Ezekiel 18:25).
God Is Sovereign and In Control
Genesis 50:20 reminds us that God can righteously use evil for His own purposes. Proverbs 16:6 and Isaiah 45:7 remind us that God does things for His reasoning and for His purposes (See to Ephesians 1:11).
God’s Grace Accommodated the Civil Law to the Culture of the People
Most often, God is seen as immoral because of the antiquated law found mostly in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which advocates stoning homosexuals, disobedient children, adulterers, and teaches such barbaric ideas as “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” etc. The new atheists would have us believe that this was just a capitulation to a misogynist, homophobic, blood thirsty, hateful, capricious God, and that good reason, in due time won out over zealous, fanatical religious nuts. Their answers assume the more of their own culture, and judge from there. They also assume an evolutionary idea of culture from an evolutionary, Hegelian dialectic. That is, we are improving and even the notion of God (Which is created by man) is evolving along with us. As we are getting nicer, God is getting nicer.
The problem is the new atheists don’t take the time to understand the culture of the time of the writing (The “sitz en leben”), and are blinded to their own cultural imperialism. They critique an ancient culture through their own lens. Which is bathed not in “enlightenment” morality, but the morality of the Christian church for 1000 years. Morality improves as those that are affected by God’s Spirit realize and live out the implications of the gospel in the world.
When reading the Old Testament civil law, we begin to understand that the laws stated in scripture actually improved the cultural issues of the day, and gave us a trajectory to return to the ideals set in Genesis 1-2. For example, an “eye for an eye,” at the time greatly improved the barbaric, continued revenge seeking tribalism of the day. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but it worked to improve conditions. Also, when in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 that a woman s violated by another man is sold to the man for 50 shekels and has to marry him, which sounds horrible, was a vast improvement, and actually was there to protect the woman and her family, who ordinarily could have been violated with nothing in return, and thrown out into the world with no hope of a future and for marriage because she had been violated. This guaranteed that she would be taken cared of. Again, not ideal, but given the moral condition of the time, God’s grace shows a graciousness that reflects His patience with the wickedness of humanity.
We see this reality in many places, but in Matthew 19:4-8 we see this biblical principle clearly. Also any understanding of the law after the cross of Jesus has to be understood in His clarification of what He meant by the fact that He came to Fulfill” the law (Matthew 5:17), which is clarified in Matthew 5-7 and 22:37-39. We see the same idea in the New Testament when Paul speaks of slavery. There are times like Colossians 3:22-25 that sounds like he’s advocating slavery, but in reality he is working with the conditions of the day, but in other places such as Galatians 3:28 and Philemon, it seems as though that he is advocating freedom and an end to slavery, and it is these very verses that led to a trajectory of Christian teaching against it, and the subsequent public outrage that brought slavery down in the UK and ultimately in the US.
God Is Holy and Righteous and Has Every Right to Judge
The fact is sin, is destructive, and has created a huge brokenness in humanity that has distorted the image of God, wreaked havoc on creation, and has turned humanity against itself. Instead of Shalom (Peace) we have anxiety everywhere we turn. God had said in the garden that rebellion in this way would bring forth death, and judgment. The skeptic does not want to give God that right.
It is often thought that the God of the Old Testament is a warmonger, while the God of the New Testament is a “Kindler, gentler God.” This is not the biblical case. There are many verses such as Exodus 34:6-7 and Ezekiel 33:11 that show God’s love and compassion for sinful, obstinate people.
We see Noah preaching 120 years for people to repent, and Jonah reaching the wicked Ninevites because of their repentance.
But in spite of God’s gracious patience, He has a right to judge evil. A lot of the wars in the Old Testament are actually opposed by God as an act of greed, and judged by God, but the most celebrated war and destruction in the bible was dictated by a holy God as an act of judgment. What’s interesting is the fact that God waited until they were so wicked, that what He did needed to be done (See Genesis 18:25). It’s also interesting that while God used a human agent; Israel (As He most often does). He does not use them because of their righteousness, but in spite of it. These verses aren’t an issue of a nationalistic Israel celebrating their victory, and seeing God on their side as most “Holy Wars” do today. As a matter of fact, it happened in spite of their disobedience, and it is written in scripture to remind us of that fact (See Deuteronomy 9:4-6).
What’s interesting is that skeptics vilify God for not acting in these situations, and vilify Him when He does judge humans as in the case of adulterers or the Canaanites?
The Cross of Jesus Christ Displays Both God’s Grace and His Justice
The law was never meant to save, which is evident in both the New and Old Testament. The law pointed to the need of a savior, and a new covenant (See Galatians 3:26; Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36 cf. Genesis 3:15). The entire scriptures, starting in Genesis 3:15 is a story of redemption; a story that depicts God as the savior and mankind in need of saving. Our sin is far grater than we can imagine, but His grace is far more amazing than we can truly know. Man continually rejects God “The fountain of living water” (See Jeremiah 2:13) and His saving story, while continuing with attempts to create his own pathway to salvation.
On the cross of Jesus Christ, God’s righteous wrath was appeased, and His holy justice was compensated for, while He unleashed His love and compassion toward all of humanity, and offered salvation and a part of His kingdom for free. We will never fully understand the cosmic magnitude of the cross, and the rebellious crime of humanity against a perfect, holy and just God, but in Christ, the scales of blindness are removed, and we see a glimpse of the righteousness of God, our depraved condition, and the glorious redemptive cross that God offers us in Christ.
… to the Heart
This subject matter is clearly an issue of the heart. When we start to mistrust anyone, we then mistrust all of his or her motives, words, etc. If we fail to believe that God is good, and trust Him with the fact that He is god, we do not have full knowledge of everything that is going on, and that He is working toward the destruction of evil, while using it for the purposes and goals he has, then we will struggle. When we place God in the docks, and judge Him for His sins, we are expressing human arrogance at its zenith, but the reality is, we are all guilty of this when we are stressed by the evil and pain we face as humans.
Questions For Further Study
- Why is evil such a problem?
- What is evil?
- Does God allow it? How so?
- Does your perspective on your place before God affect your thinking re: evil?
- How is your faith doing right now with this issue?
The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections On Tough Questions of Faith, Christopher J.H. Wright
Is God a Moral Monster, Paul Copan
Can God Be Trusted: Faith and the Challenge of Evil, John G. Stackhouse
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History, Howard Bloom
Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright
Evil and the Cross, Henri Blocher
How Long Oh Lord: Reflections On Suffering and Evil, D.A. Carson
The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis
Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
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